From Mary to the Ancient City of Merv Turkmenistan

Merv Turkmenistan

If you haven’t traveled to Turkmenistan, you’re not alone. I bet they really don’t see many visitors due to the challenges of getting approval to visit.  You can read about it on the Lonely Planet guide to Turkmenistan or trust me, there is no such thing as independent travel.  You’re required to have a guide and simply taking your guide to places you decide you want to go is also off the list.  You strictly have to check in as scheduled and not deviate off course.  In our travel along the silk road, Turkmenistan was initially planned to be a quick stop, but they wouldn’t have it.  They required us to spend at least one night and even that came across as extremely suspicious to them.  I do think we had some extra scrutiny, but after all the attention, we did make it through the border fairly quickly (about an hour).  It was good to know that we could essentially got to the front of the line as “tourists.”  We didn’t see any other tourists the entire time we were in the country, but I did meet a lot of friendly people and the nicest camel I’ve ever met in my life… and in my travels that is a lot!  The opposite end of the spectrum is the camel at Petra that spit and bit at me.

Turkmen Camel

While I’m on the topic of camels which is one of my favorite things about Turkmenistan, we saw a lot of camels simply roaming through the desert.  In some countries you see sheep on the hills.  In Turkmenistan, you see groups of camels by themselves just walking along the desert.  It’s amazing how long they can go without water.  There were often 2 or 3 adults among a group which may have a handful of young ones eating near by.  For these more wild camels we never knew how crazy they might be, but we took our chances for some good shots being cautious and then snuggling up with this lovable camel.

Turkmenistan Wild Camel

Kissy Camel lips

Turkmenistan Desert

The deserts of Turkmenistan do have a lot of green in them.  Our guide was pointing that from space it looks pretty green.  Much of what Turkmenistan looked like on the drive across looked like the picture above.  I hear there are even more great adventures out through the sand, but we didn’t get to spend that kind of time.  Our trip to Turkmen was a part of a bigger trip across the silk road.

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Some maybe most wouldn’t be able to point out where Turkmenistan is on the map.  It’s north of Iran, West of Afghanistan, and shares a large border with Uzbekistan and finally the Caspian sea to it’s West.  We would start our journey in Bukhara and spend the night in Mary after seeing Merv. I want you to see a few pictures of life today in Turkmenistan based on what I saw as we drove across this fascinating land.

 

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First you do see lots of flags and statues including the famous Turkmen symbols from the special star to the Turkmen rug symbols for the tribes on the national flag.  I think every tour in Turkmenistan starts out by explaining the nomadic tribes and their tribal symbols on the flag.  Great story or unifying tribes.

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These ladies were selling their wares on the side of the road out in the desert.  Most of it looked hand made from camel fur.  Pretty amazing what they could make with a little wool and camel yarn.  These ladies covered up their faces pretty quickly when they saw us take our camera’s out.

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Kyrgystan has yurts in the mountains, and Turkmen has yurts in the desert.

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Many muslims in Turkmenistan (93%).  They are a very religious people it seemed to me for the most part, despite being a former soviet country.

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Women wear very long dresses and young girls wear their long hair down.  Once married the hair goes up.

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Statue and Soviet looking bus.  You do really see a variety of old and new in the cities.

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Traditional dinner in Mary.  Yep more Shishka, but these were very fresh and tender.

Now for the old.  In Merv I had two favorites both part of the ancient city of Merv which is part of the Unesco heritage site.  Merv is the oldest and best-preserved of the oasis-cities along the Silk Route in Central Asia. The remains in this vast oasis span 4,000 years of human history. A number of monuments are still visible, particularly from the last two millennia.

Clay Walls of Kyzkala Palace Unesco Turkmenistan

Clay Walls of Kyzkala Palace Unesco Turkmenistan

The oasis formed part of the empire of Alexander the Great.  Fluted Clay Wall of Kyzkala Palace

Read more about the UNESCO site on their website  http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/886

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Palace, Dome and Ruins… (even a little came in the photo… can you see it?)

I appreciate this quote on Merv.  While I saw there, I tried to imagine the city in it’s 12th century times as potentially the largest city in the world!!  “Merv (Turkmen: Merw, Persian: مرو‎ Marw), formerly Achaemenid Satrapy of Margiana, and later Alexandria (Ἀλεξάνδρεια) and Antiochia in Margiana (Greek: Ἀντιόχεια τῆς Μαργιανῆς), was a major oasis-city in Central Asia, on the historical Silk Road, located near today’s Mary in Turkmenistan. Several cities have existed on this site, which is significant for the interchange of culture and politics at a site of major strategic value. It is claimed that Merv was briefly the largest city in the world in the 12th century. The site of ancient Merv has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.”

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Merv was home to practitioners of various religions beside the official Sassanid Zoroastrianism, including Buddhists, Manichaeans, and Christians of the Church of the East.  While in much of it now you see mounds these were once great walls.  The idea that Zoroastrians were in the same town as Buddhists and Christians is amazing to me.

 

“It is during this period that Merv expanded to its greatest size—Arab and Persian geographers termed it “the mother of the world”, the “rendezvous of great and small”, the “chief city of Khurasan” and the capital of the eastern Islamic world. Written sources also attest to a large library and madrasa founded by Nizam al-Mulk, as well as many other major cultural institutions. Perhaps most importantly, Merv was said to have a market that is “the best of the major cities of Iran and Khurasan” (Herrmann 1999). It is believed that Merv was the largest city in the world from 1145 to 1153, with a population of 200,000”

As we walked around trying to soak in the history and imagine the vast cities within cities, we were in awe.

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Now in much of what was the largest city, you see mounds.  In 1221 Merv opened it’s gates to the son of Genghis Khan, named Tolui.

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Not much to see now.  Looking from the walls of the city toward the dome at sunset.

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Artists rendition of the “before”

It is during this period that Merv expanded to its greatest size—Arab and Persian geographers termed it “the mother of the world”, the “rendezvous of great and small”, the “chief city of Khurasan” and the capital of the eastern Islamic world. Written sources also attest to a large library and madrasa founded by Nizam al-Mulk, as well as many other major cultural institutions. Perhaps most importantly, Merv was said to have a market that is “the best of the major cities of Iran and Khurasan” (Herrmann 1999). It is believed that Merv was the largest city in the world from 1145 to 1153, with a population of 200,000” – Merv Wikipedia Article

Fascinating to read the largest cities of the world over time.  Surprised not to see any Incan or Mayan cities or even Angkor Wat.  I think it’s a fun list but not complete.

 

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From the top of the tower.  Dome in the distance.

 

Sultan Sanjar mausoleum

Sultan Sanjar mausoleum, the old dome.  It really is the best preserved of everything we saw in Merv.  This 12th-century mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, also in Sultan Gala is the largest of Seljuk mausoleums and is also the first dated mosque-mausoleum complex.

Sultan Sanjar mausoleum old 1890

 

Sultan Sanjar mausoleum dome merv

The stacked rocks reveal that buddhists have visited the place and leave prayer rocks.

muslim star

 

 

 

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The ruins of Merv were fascinating to explore.  With civilization after civilization for millinum it is overwhelming to think of this area as some of the oldest continuous civilization.

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In conclusion… Turkmenistan was a fascinating visit.  I do recommend Turkmenistan on any silk road tour.  I wish I could have made it to the door to hell or derweze.  Make sure you look that up to see if it fits you’re schedule.  Otherwise if you want some history and friendly camels, Soviet city of Mary/ and Ancient city of Merv is a great destination.

Bahrain – Top 5 Things to See and Do


  Bahrain Architecture

Formula one

Bahrain is your oyster.  You’ll likely start your travels of Bahrain in the capital of Manama.  Manama means “Sleeping Place” and while it may seem quaint, there is some fascinating places to see and visit.  Bahrain has changed a lot in the last decade, and is poised to change even more in the decade to come in competiting with it’s neighbors to be the Next Dubai, or compete for fans of Forumula one.  People come to Bahrain to relax and have fun.

Many may plan their trip to Bahrain around a race, or football competition.  The stadium is huge, and the infrastructure is designed to host a very large crowd.  There’s also a lot of international food places that will surprise you that they’ve got.  You likely didn’t know some of these places made their way to a place like Bahrain, but that’s also important in understanding the future of Bahrain.  Once you think you’ve got it figured out… it will surprise you.  There will likely be more struggles in this country in the future, it is a place of change.

1. Manama Souq

Manama Souq, known for it’s pearls and gold in the warren of streets behind Bab al-Bahrain.  The souq is the place to go for electronics, bargains, spices, sheesha bottles and a other Bahraini essentials.  It definitely isn’t just a tourist destination.  You’ll see all types of people shopping Most shops in the souq are open from about 09:00 to 13:00 and 16:00 to 21:00 Saturday to Thursday, and after evening prayer on Friday.  It’s a great way to people watch and see a great variety of people from the well dressed upper class Bahrainy to the working class folks.  May I even entertain the idea that you can see Shiite and Sunni doing business together in the market?

2. Mosques: National Mosque – Al-Fatih Mosque

Muslim Mosque GuideBahrain National Mosque

The national mosque is open to visitors.  Happy to share information about the life of the Muslim and more of the faith of Islam this grand mosque has very informative guides. The Al-Fatih Mosque is the largest building in the country and is capable of holding up to 7000 worshippers. The mosque was built with marble from Italy, glass from Austria and teak wood from India, carved by local Bahraini, and has some fine examples of interior design.

 

 

National Mosque of Bahrain

3. Tree of Life

The Tree of Life BahrainTree of Life

Before and After pictures of the Tree of Life… out in the desert.

Located in the middle of the desert, the Tree of Life, a 500 or 800 year old mesquite tree, stands alone. It is a mystery as to how it stays so green and alive in the waterless desert.  Standing alone in the desert about 1.2 miles (two kilometers) from the Jebel Dukhan.  It’s quite large and has huge branches. It looks too old, but the leaves still fresh green…

The tree source of water remains mystery, some others believe that it gets nourishing from the underground but no one knows why this tree still surviving.

It was quite the trek out of the city to go track down the tree, and I was disappointed to find someone had tried to burn it, and vandalized it.  I found a lot of what’s going on in the region in the appearance of the tree and it’s treatment.  It seems to represent life.  It’s undergone some rough times, and this tree has seen a lot and despite all of that it has continued to persist.

While we were out there looking at the tree, we could see a group of tanks doing military exercises.

3. Dilmun Burial Mounds – A’ali Burial Mounds

Bahrain Burial Mounds Archeologist dig

As far as the eye could see, thousands and thousands of mounds dating from far back as 4000 years ago.  Not the size of the normal burial plot, but the size of a small house.  Over 350,000 ancient burial mounds covering spanning over 1000 years.  Some think it’s where Adam and Eve came from.  Could be the largest pre-historic ancient burial plot in the world covering many square kilometers.  There are so many that even today the locals are debating what to do with it.  If they excavate they can reuse the land, but some debate there isn’t much in them beyond pots and modest means, but some have copper and bronze weapons, jewelry, pottery that could tell the story of Dilmun civilization, an ancient trading hub that connected Mesopotamia, South Arabia and India, is believed to have inhabited Bahrain during the Bronze Age.    While I was there I saw an archeological team digging, finding bones, and pieces of pots, and so on.  The national museum has an exhibit on these strange mounds.

If you think there are a lot of mounds now, there’s only 1/5 of what use to exist, cleared for housing or already looted.  UNESCO has considered adding some of the burial mounds to it’s list.

4. Bahrain National Museum

Burial Mound

The most popular destination is the National Museum.  (It’s nearby where the Pearl Monument was located were recently (Mar 2011) it was destroyed during the civil unrest in uprisings that occurred there.  Bahrain is still known as one of the more liberal countries in the Persian gulf.)

This Museum Bahrain National Museum is the best place to start for an intriguing, well-labelled introduction to the sights of the country.  It’s also walking distance to the waterfront. The museum showcases archaeological finds from ancient Dilmun and includes beautiful agate and carnelian beads and earthenware burial jars – used for the body as well as its chattels. It also outlines the local history of pearl fishing including information on the boats the dhow, complete with pearl divers.

Read more about this and other attractions on Lonely Planet guide to Bahrain.

5. Fort, Bahrain

Fort Bahrain

A UNESCO World Heritage, Fort Bahrain is a remnant of a former time when the port was controlled by the Portuguese in the 15th and 16th centuries.  This was during the times when they dominated trade routes in the Indian Ocean  One of the more important historic buildings on the island, the Bahrain Fort (or Qala’at al-Bahrain in Arabic). This fort is one of several built in Bahrain and around the Persian Gulf to protect these trade routes.  You can climb all over it and there are great views of the water from there.  Nearby there are some more ancient ruins (4000 years ago) of the Dilmun capital referred to in Sumerian writings (bronze age) surrounding the fort.

There are a couple of other forts as well in Bahrain worth seeing if you liked this one:  Arad Fort (near airport) and Riffa Fort (near Riffa).

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As you explore Bahrain you will continue to find things to see… there are some older sites to see including this ancient Mosque no longer has its roof and a few remaining walls.  You can still climb the minaret in the old mosque from 1400’s.

Enjoy exploring this fascinating country that isn’t going to stay still… it’s a progressive place and modernizing like crazy.  Expect Bahrain to be the place to be with the likes of Doha, and Dubai.